Archive for Food Products

My Quest for La Quercia

Last week after our lovely lunch at Mimi’s Hummus, Rachel and I ducked into Market, the gourmet food shop next door. I walked slowly around the store, perusing the jars of local pickles and Middle Eastern spices, purposefully restraining myself from making any unnecessary (yet likely delicious) purchases. In fact, I probably would have left empty-handed had I not taken a closer look at the refrigerated case of cured meats, olives, and cheeses. That’s when I saw the yellow- and green-accented packaging of La Quercia Prosciutto Americano.

La Quercia is the only American producer of high-quality prosciutto, and its products have been lauded by Americans, Italians, and all nationalities in between. I had read about this unique Iowa-based company last year, and had recently tried its prosciutto at Danny Meyer’s new restaurant, Maialino. My dining partners and I were astonished by the meat’s authentic, natural flavor, and how it more than held its own against the Italian offerings on the cured meat platter we shared as an antipasto. But it was only after I found this pre-sliced, handy package of La Quercia’s cured pork at Market that I reviewed the company’s inspiring background again.

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse lived in Parma, Italy, for three and a half years, and fell in love with the idea of making Italian dry-cured meats in their home state of Iowa. After years of experimentation with this centuries-old tradition, the Eckhouses founded La Quercia (“oak” in Italian) in 2000. Not content to simply create an Italian facsimile of prosciutto, La Quercia produces cured meats that celebrate Iowa’s natural bounty without using artificial ingredients or preservatives. All of the pigs for its various cured products—in addition to different variations of prosciutto, La Quercia makes speck, coppa, pancetta, and guanciale—come from within 200 miles of the prosciuttificio, and are raised on vegetarian, grain-based diets, without antibiotics. These are pig products we can all feel good about.

I took the simple route with my package of Prosciutto Americano, draping its thin slices over squares of cantaloupe and eating it for lunch. Each buttery, supple slice was a revelation. The chewy, slightly fatty meat, falling in elastic sheets over the fresh fruit, was less salty yet somehow creamier than other Italian prosciutto I have tried, and I found myself eating slice after slice without pause. Later in the week, Jim and I sandwiched the remaining pieces in between some turkey cutlets for this recipe, adding a more intense layer of flavor to a simple meal. No matter what dish it appeared in, La Quercia’s prosciutto was the star. And we have Iowa and the Eckhouses to thank for it.

La Quercia’s prosciutto and other artisanal cured meats can be found at specialty food and grocery stores such as Whole Foods and the Red Hook Fairway. Check out their website for more store and ordering information.

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Nunu Chocolates and a Bridal Shower

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A maid of honor has numerous responsibilities. Some are emotional, such as keeping the bride calm and radiant on one of the most special days of her life. Others are more practical, like making sure all of the other bridesmaids are wearing the same color shoes. (Yes, it really does matter.) But perhaps the most crucial maid of honor responsibility is hosting a kick-ass bridal shower. A few weeks ago, I threw one for my younger sister Melissa, who is getting married in August.

For the favors, I turned to Justine Pringle of Nunu Chocolates in Brooklyn. I knew these handmade chocolates, with their creative fillings and shapes, from tasting them at the Brooklyn Flea last year. Pringle opened her own shop on Atlantic Avenue a few months ago, and that’s where I met her to discuss the favors. Tall, blonde, and extremely friendly, she asked me several questions about the upcoming wedding, my sister’s sense of style, and her wedding colors. We looked at different colored gift boxes and quickly came up with a plan for the package design. I knew within minutes that I had chosen the right person to create something special for my sister.

While I was originally interested in using Nunu’s chocolates because they tasted so delicious, I was also attracted to the story behind them. The chocolate ganaches, caramels, and other chocolate products at Nunu are totally natural, made from cocoa beans procured directly from a sustainable farm in Eastern Colombia. Being environmentally conscious has always been a strong theme in Pringle’s life, as she has a degree in Environmental Management and Technology, and worked in environmental waste management before turning to chocolate. Looking for unique merchandise to sell at husband Andy Laird’s music concerts, she studied at the Ecole Chocolat and started making chocolates. They soon became popular in their own right, and Nunu Chocolates was born.

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For my sister’s favors, Pringle and I selected four different chocolates that demonstrated a wide range of Nunu’s flavors. I was immediately attracted to the salt caramels, whose gooey caramel center combined perfectly with the rich chocolate and crunchy salt on the exterior. The festive prosecco ganache was entirely appropriate for an Italian-American themed shower, while the floral earl grey and sweet organic raspberry ganaches calmly closed the day’s festivities. Unique and tasty, they were coveted by everyone who came to the shower.

Pringle will soon build a beer and wine bar, as well as a production kitchen, at her Atlantic Avenue shop. I can’t wait to stop by and relax with a selection of chocolates and a nice glass of wine, perhaps after Melissa’s wedding later this summer. Until then, a maid of honor’s work is never done.

Nunu Chocolates, 529 Atlantic Avenue, between 3rd and 4th Avenues, in Brooklyn. T: 917-776-7102. Check the website for ordering information and other locations that sell Nunu Chocolates.

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More Than Just Risotto: Cooking with Arborio Rice

Arborio rice is a staple in my pantry, but for years I used it sparingly, only hauling it out every once in a while to make risotto. And by “once in a while” I mean once or twice a year. Don’t get me wrong—I love risotto, but my poor arms can handle only so many upper body workouts, and all that stirring can be rather taxing on the biceps.

But in the past year I’ve started cooking with this short-grain Italian rice more often, for several reasons. First of all, it’s easier to prepare than longer-grain kernels, which I often seem to undercook or burn. With the Arborio variety, I just cover the rice with water, simmer it for 15 minutes, and finally drain it for whatever recipe I’m working with. Perhaps best of all, its high-starch content produces a creamy, moist texture that elevates simple dishes to divine. 

If you don’t believe me, take a look back at my Easter torta di riso or my stuffed Swiss chard leaves for proof. Or you can try cookbook author Viana La Place’s recipe for Lemony Rice-Parsley Salad that I found in Food & Wine a few months ago. I made it on Friday night, and my winning streak continued: As a dessert or main dish, Arborio rice has yet to fail me. 

La Place’s simple salad came together in under half an hour, perfect for a quick and healthy weeknight meal. While the rice cooked on the stovetop, I quickly chopped some parsley and pitted some briny black olives. After draining the cooked rice, I tossed everything together with olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of green pepper, and capers.

It was so easy I almost felt guilty calling it dinner. Luckily this sentiment was fleeting, as Jim and I enjoyed every bite of the supple, silky salad. It simply burst with the flavors of tangy capers, springy parsley, and lemon juice, all enhanced by the creamy texture of the rice and oil-cured olives.

As a result of these rice-related successes, a box of Arborio rice always sits towards the front of my pantry shelves. It is no longer relegated to the back of the cupboard, hiding out until a special occasion risotto dinner. I’m already planning on using it for Mark Bittman’s amazing Paella with Tomatoes later this week. That reminds me, I need to check and make sure that I have enough rice.

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My Cookie of the Month: Gorayba

As I’ve already mentioned, one benefit of my knock-down, drag-out hummus competition was that it required several trips to Atlantic Avenue’s Middle Eastern food shops. At Sahadi’s I slowly wandered among the imported, exotic foodstuffs. I also spent some quality time ogling the piles of pita bread, cookies, and sweets at the Syrian Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop

Of course I never left either store empty-handed. But let’s concentrate on my visits to Damascus, where I bought sweet, sticky baklava, in both walnut and pistachio varieties. Intricate bird’s nest pastries currently await me in a white paper bag on my kitchen counter, almost too pretty to eat. I stocked up on light, airy, white and whole-wheat pita bread. I also purchased an unfamiliar shortbread cookie that I couldn’t bring myself to save for later: gorayba

I knew I had to try these bracelet-shaped butter cookies from the moment I saw them behind the glass display case at the pastry shop. They practically begged me to buy them, bring them home, and enjoy them with a hot cup of tea. 

Gorayba are usually defined as Arabic cardamom shortbread cookies, made on special occasions and found throughout the Middle East. Sometimes almonds or pistachios are placed at the intersection where the two ends of dough meet. According to Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, it’s important not to overcook the gorayba (also spelled ghorayebah). They must remain quite white in color, because their flavor changes greatly if they even slightly brown.

Some recipes say that the addition of cardamom is optional; I’m not sure I tasted it in the cookies I recently bought. Roden’s book also suggests hazelnut, nutmeg, and cinnamon variations. In any case, these cookies are memorable for their buttery, slightly sweet simplicity. Jim says his Greek grandmother used to make a similar cookie called koulourakia, but we have to investigate this more fully. And I have to make another trip to the Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, as I’ve eaten all of my gorayba.

Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, 195 Atlantic Avenue, between Court and Clinton Streets, in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.  T: 718-625-7070

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Pasolivo Olive Oil

Pasolivo’s Tasting Room, Paso Robles, California

 

Joshua Yaguda, Pasolivo’s olive miller, stood in the middle of the press room hosing down the Pieralisi olive mill. We turned our heads with the rest of the tour group as a small voice, with an accompanying echo, came from inside the tall steel vat to our left.

“Oh, that’s just my daughter Veda,” said Joshua. We joined in the laughter as little Veda gaily greeted us from inside the vat, where she was helping her dad with the cleaning. I’m still wondering what she found in there.

It’s this family-centric attitude that makes Pasolivo, and most of Paso Robles’s small, family-owned wineries, so unique. Pasolivo is operated and owned by Karen Guth; her son Yaguda and his family also run the ranch with her. Over 45 acres of Tuscan olives are hand-picked on the ranch at harvest time in order to prevent bruising and maintain the highest quality for their extra virgin, award-winning oils.

Oh yes, the olive oils. We tried several of them that day: the 3-month old “olio nuovo,” and the Meyer lemon, lime, and tangerine varieties. Rustic bread dipped in olive oil and then topped with coarse salt combined to refresh our palates. All thoughts of the Cabernet and Syrah we had tasted just minutes earlier on our wine tasting trail were forgotten, and we left with a bottle of the Meyer lemon oil, our favorite from the tasting.

In an attempt to recapture those sunny days on California’s Central Coast, I’ve used the lemon oil in almost every meal we’ve cooked since returning to dreary, wintery Brooklyn. On the suggestion of Joeli Yaguda, Joshua’s wife and Pasolivo’s sales and marketing manager, I covered a chicken in the citrus oil and roasted it to create a juicy and flavorful meal. The oil has also brightened up several salads, and last night we brushed it on some grey sole baked with garlic and breadcrumbs.

And that’s how we’re keeping our Paso Robles vacation alive: some Pasolivo olive oil on our salads, a glass of Hansen Vineyards Cabernet with our dinner. I just don’t know what we’ll do when we run out of wine. 

Pasolivo Olive Oil, 8530 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles T: 805-227-0186

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